PDA is in Our Culture. Hindutva Brigade, Take That.

Published: February 13, 2015 23:55 IST

(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time.)

Happy Valentine's Day! Assuming, of course, that you're celebrating it, which these days in India is a somewhat risky business. After years of attacking couples holding hands on February 14th, trashing stores selling Valentine's Day greeting cards and shouting slogans outside cafes with canoodling couples, Hindutva activists have changed tactics this year. The Hindu Mahasabha has announced that it will send squads out to catch any unmarried couples out for a tryst today and promptly cart them off to a temple to be married. (And, if Sakshi Maharaj has his way, they will be lectured on the virtues of producing between four and ten children forthwith, in order to give his fantasies a voting majority.)

The changing face of intolerance might be amusing if it weren't for the fact that all involved are deadly serious. The nativists argue that Valentine's Day is an imported celebration, which it is (but so is Christmas, or Id-ul-Nabi, or International Women's Day, for that matter, and they don't have the nerve to attack those). They also argue that it is un-Indian because it celebrates romantic love, and there they're completely wrong. In fact historians tell us that in ancient times, there was a well-established Hindu tradition of adoration for Kamadeva, the lord of love, which was only abandoned after the Muslim invasions in medieval times. But then no one in the Hindu Mahasabha has any real idea of Hindu tradition - their idea of Indian values is not just primitive and narrow-minded, it is also profoundly anti-historical.

In fact what young people today call "PDA" or "public display of affection" was widely prevalent in ancient India. As late as the 11th century, Hindu sexual freedoms were commented upon by shocked travellers from the Muslim world. Today's young celebrants of Valentine's Day are actually upholding India's ancient pre-Muslim culture, albeit in a much milder form than is on display, for instance, in Khajuraho. How ironic that they should incur the disapproval of the self-appointed custodians of Bharatiya Sanskriti!

But it's the "self-appointed" part where the real problem lies. All this is being done in the name of a notion of Indian culture whose assertion is based on a denial of our real past. India's culture has always been a capacious one, expanding to include new and varied influences, from the Greek invasions to the British. The central battle in contemporary Indian civilization is that between those who, to borrow from Walt Whitman, acknowledge that as a result of our own historical experience, we are vast, we contain multitudes, and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define -in increasingly narrower terms -what is "truly" Indian.

Modern Hinduism has always prided itself on its tolerance for difference. In fact, Swami Vivekananda, whom the bigots ignorantly lay claim to, went farther, and spoke of the hallmark of our civilization being not just tolerance but acceptance - the Hindu idea of sarva dharma sama bhava, that all ways to the divine are equally valid. The Hindu Mahasabha and their ilk, out to despoil the innocent fun of Valentine's Day celebrants and even to impose their puritanical ideas upon them by carting them off to shotgun weddings, are fundamentally betraying Hinduism.

The central tenet of tolerance is that the tolerant society accepts that which it does not understand, and even that which it does not like, so long as it is not sought to be imposed upon the unwilling. Those who persecute young boys and girls trying to celebrate Valentine's Day have no right to claim they are doing so in the name of a culture which has long been a byword for tolerance. Their narrow-mindedness and bigotry betray the very culture they claim to be defending.

For where, in the Hindutva brigade's definition of "Bharatiya sanskriti," do the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho belong? Should their explicitly detailed couplings not be pulled down, as Fashion TV's cable signals were during the last BJP government? What about the Kama Sutra, the tradition of the devadasis, the eros of the Krishna Leela - are they all un-Indian now?

When the late, great Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote his final ode to our civilization, In Light of India, he devoted an entire section to Sanskrit erotic poetry, basing himself, among other things, on the Buddhist monk Vidyakara's immortal 11th-century compilation of 1728 kavya, many of which are exquisitely profane. Are poets like Ladahachandra or Bhavakadevi, who a thousand years ago wrote verse after verse describing and praising the female breast, to be expelled from the Hindutva canon of "Bharatiya sanskriti"? Should we tell future Octavio Pazes seeking to appreciate the attainments of our culture that the Mahabharata on TV is "Bharatiya sanskriti," but a classical portrayal of the erotic longings of the gopis for Krishna is not?

It may not seem to matter very much what some lumpen elements think of Valentine's Day. But it is precisely this kind of narrow-mindedness that also led to the notorious "pulping" of Wendy Doniger's erudite studies of Hinduism. If these intolerant bullies are allowed to get away with their lawless acts of intolerance and intimidation, we are allowing them to do violence to something profoundly vital to our survival as a civilization.

Pluralist and democratic India must, by definition, tolerate plural expressions of its many identities. To allow the self-appointed arbiters of Bharatiya sanskriti to impose their hypocrisy and double standards on the rest of us is to permit them to define Indianness down until it ceases to be Indian.

I trust that the police will intervene against the officious busybodies of the Hindutva brigades every time they try to intrude on a young Valentine's Day couple.And maybe the BJP government, with its fondness for rebaptizing Government schemes with new Sanskrit appellations, should give serious thought to just calling Valentine's Day Kamadeva Divas. Then the Hindu Mahasabha could be given a few ancient texts and told to rediscover the glories of their own ancient culture. It might actually broaden their bigoted minds.

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